Tour des Fouilles (4): Cemenelum, or why was Nice not a Roman city?

Every tourist guide of Nice will proudly emphasize that the city was already founded by the Greeks, under the name of Nikaia, and this is indeed true in some sense. Yet, while the picturesque Colline du Château gives quite a classical acropolis-experience when you're standing there, overlooking the sea, there are no ancient remains in the city centre - neither Greek, nor Roman. In fact, Nikaia does not really seem to have been a Big Thing - it was little more than a satellite of Massilia (Marseille), from where it was founded in the third century BC. Probably, it was not even founded as a city but as  a small trading post. Rather than the Greeks, it was the indigenous Celto-Ligurian tribe of the Vediantii that came to determine the ancient topography of the area.

Cemenelum: Street with drainage channel - (Photo: Miko Flohr [2000])

Unlike the sea-faring Greeks, the Vedantii did not live directly on the coast, but had their settlements a little bit more inland. If you want to see ancient remains in the Nice area, you're up for a walk (or a bus ride) all the way to Cimiez, three kilometers from the seashore. At Cimiez, the Vedantii had their main oppidum, which seems to have coexisted peacefully with Nikaia - indeed, the Greeks may even have created Nikaia specifically to trade with the Vedantii. When the Romans, in the first century AD decided to establish the province of Alpes Maritimae, they chose Cimiez, and not Nikaia as the location for its capital city - Cemenelum. It is not completely clear why exactly this decision was made in this way, but it did have a huge impact on the region, and it probably prevented further urbanization at Nikaia.

Cemenelum: Amphitheatre of Cemenelum - (Photo: Miko Flohr [2000])

As administrative centre of gravity in the region, Cemenelum got the full Roman package of urban comforts - an aqueduct, public baths, an amphitheatre, and paved roads with sewers underneath them. It also got good connections with the hinterland - Roman roads in the area focus on Cemenelum, not on Nikaia, as becomes clear from, for example the fourth century Peutinger Map. The city flourished until Roman rule collapsed in late antiquity. Ironically, it is mainly after antiquity that people seem to have moved to coast, and settled at the site of the old greek trading post. The site at Cimiez was largely abandoned, and never overbuilt, which meant that it ended up rather well-preserved and could be excavated, and turned into an archaeological park that still can be visited. Nice, however, has little more in common with Nikaia than its name, and its location.


Cleere, H. (2001). Southern France. Oxford Archaeological Guides. Oxford.
Benoit, F. (1977). Cimiez, la ville antique. Fouilles de Cemenelum 1. Paris.